This article represents a (drastically) revised version of a text()* originally published in 2006 in a special volume of the academic journal of philosophy and cultural theory, Topos.() The entire volume, entitled “Choice and Elections,” was dedicated to the phenomenon of political (non)participation in contemporary Belarus, or more precisely, to the paradox of the political indifference of Belarusian citizens during the presidential elections of 2006. The idea was to confront and contrast the imitation of democratic procedures in the electoral campaigns and the impossibility of democratic change in today’s Belarus with the seemingly unbounded multiplicity of choices in a society of consumption, for the which in a very similar way creates the illusion of rational and authentic individual choice, providing consumers with the opportunity to choose between only false alternatives. For a western audience the very concept of the thematic volume in question might not seem to be a “pioneering” approach, for there are a vast number of publications dealing with everything from the phenomenon of the “passive citizen” as an “active consumer,” to the crisis of representation (including the notion of representative democracy) and the collapse of public sphere in contemporary societies. However, for Belarusian readers (as well as for those analysts who are studying the “anomalous case” of contemporary Belarus in as a country which fell out from the processes of democratic transformation which took place everywhere in Eastern Europe after 1989), such an approach might have allowed developing a somewhat larger theoretical framework in which to formulate fresh perspectives on the “glocal” specificity of the Belarusian political and cultural situation.
My article for that volume focused on the potential of alternative cultural politics under conditions when “politics” as a form of the involvement of collective political subjects in the processes of decision-making and of social reconstruction seems to have come to its end. I argued that art practices (despite the marginal position of art in today’s social life) can bee seen as a reservoir of political ideas in a situation in which open confrontations with power are not only risky, but in a way it meaningless. The situationist concept of détournement once again revealed its usefulness as an analytical tool for rethinking the forms of resistance in a country which, on the one hand, similarly to its western and westernized counterparts, can be approached as a society of spectacle, where the political field has been subjugated to the logic of mediatization, but on the other hand differs significantly in terms of the function and regulation of the political and social spheres: the current Belarusian political regime, ruled by Alexander Lukashenko, remains strikingly intolerant to virtually all forms of political heterodoxy and, thus, puts very strict limitations on all forms of open manifestation of oppositional political views.
Moreover, the very ideology of the situationist movement seemed to me an appropriate framework for comparing the spontaneous mass protests of young people in Belarus, who quickly adopted the format of ‘flash mob’ for their needs, thus, transforming it into a quasi-political form of resistance, and the tradition of partisan warfare which marked the whole of 20th century Belarusian history and influenced its cultural production in various ways (starting from ‘partisan-movies’ in the late 1920s or 1960s and ending by the art-journal “partisan’ in the 1990s).
The “invention” of politics (or, perhaps, its substitution by cultural practices) took place due to the expansion of new media, of course. Not only would the phenomenon of flash-mobs not have been possible in the first place without Internet, but some other forms of counter-cultural protest have been entirely moved into the virtual environment: namely, the symbolic struggle over cultural dominance has been carried out largely through the Web-based project Belzhaba,() which serves both as a subversive visual archive of contemporary Belarusian political history as well as a platform for iconoclastic manifestations of mass creativity. Such a form of anonymous creativity, based on the ironic reworking of visual images, in a certain way appropriated, within the context of the internet, the functions of a public or politically engaged art practice virtually non-existent, in its more traditional forms, in Belarus. Whether this can be called “art,” of course, is another question.
My initial plan, here—to translate that article into English by simply making it concise and digestible for a western audience through some additional comments—quickly appeared overly optimistic and idealistic, for a number of important reasons.
Firstly, academic texts are by nature subject to a kind of inevitable “moral obsolescence,” especially when a certain historical Event served as the main object of analysis. With the passage of time, they might become interesting as historical evidence and, thus, as objects for a historical research through a prism of longue durée approach. But in the short term it is impossible to enter into the same river twice: what occurred in 2006 simply cannot be presented as “breaking news” in 2009. This is the reason that, for the present publication, I have taken out almost all of details of the analysis of political situation of the time, instead focusing on those things that have not lost their significance with the passage of time.
The historical sense of an Event (its causality), its contextualization, actual “readings” of that Event, and many other things might be irretrievable, considering that we live in the modernist cult of “novelty,” dominated by a media interested only in the latest “sensations” and for just as long as they remain both sensational and the latest. In this sense, the last “historical mark” in the East European context was the chain of events that conditioned and immediately followed the collapse of socialism—from the falling of the Berlin Wall to the disintegration of Soviet Union. All other (political) events since then can be granted at best only the status of microevents, of the sort whose importance lasts only until the next “sensation.”
In the present case, the role of the Event was assigned to the presidential elections that took place Belarus in the spring of 2006. In the beginning of 2006 it seemed that Belarus—widely recognized as the last authoritarian state in Europe, as it is often referred to—stood on the threshold of another “color revolution.” Many Belarusians believed that the day after those elections we would wake up in a new country. Even the color of Revolution was defined in advance—it was supposed to be the blue of denim blue jeans. The event that followed those elections, however—the week long resistance of young people camped out in front of the Palace of Republic on October Square, as well as massive arrests of political activists and those who were simply “sympathizing” with the resistance—did not turn into the “true” Event. The course of history was challenged, but not changed. The expected miracle did not occurred. As such, this article can be read as a historical text which reflects on the state of exasperation and frustration in which many Belarusian intellectuals found themselves in that moment—a state of exasperation and frustration which lead, in turn, to new forms of escapism and resistance.
Secondly, to make Belarus an “interesting" case for a western audience appeared a perhaps utopian goal. Belarus is a marginal country in nearly all senses: politically, economically, culturally, and so forth. The president Alexander Lukashenko has been our only “newsmaker” during the past 15 years. And as the position of the European Union has changed considerably in relation to Belarus over the course of last two years, becoming increasingly one of only slightly begrudging cooperation, the image of Belarus has lost some of its defining uniqueness as a kind of last outpost for the “old” Eastern Europe. It has been successfully “normalized” in Western political discourse as well as in media representations, despite the fact that within the country itself nothing has changed. We continue to live in the same state, where the same political leader has been in power since 1994. It seems that the point of view of an insider (as well as the modes of conceptualization of our present experience here and now) is not translatable at this point. Thus, it might well happen that for ARTMargins the Belarusian experience might have only anthropological value.() At the same time, some reflections from the margins still might be of use. If the Belarusian “case” is indeed primarily a matter of representation, then it is worth investigating how the struggle over alternative representations is being developed here. I do believe that some of the phenomena analyzed in this article which relate to the performative politics of a collective subject in Belarus, might be of interest to those readers who feel discontent with both art and politics in their own countries (even if they are not that interested in knowing more about Belarus).
Politics in the age of its appearing absence
Passivity and the indifference of the majority of citizens in relation to the political sphere seem to be characteristic features of the general crisis of politics that can be observed today in a wide range of countries. The fact that we are speaking of the politics all the time (in relation to parliamentary elections, armed conflicts, summits, and political scandals) in no way guarantees that we are dealing with actual politics, and not its simulacrum. Apparently diverse forms of the political participation in reality may be nothing else more than well-orchestrated repetitions of the same empty gestures. French philosopher Alain Badiou argues that politics has entered in the age of its absence and that when we deal with politics today we are in fact dealing with a “long abandoned field of activity” of which a few vacant signs are still being produced.
Badiou’s thesis can be interpreted in various ways: for some it refers, first of all, to a crisis in political representation; for others, it refers to an absence of political events; for still others, it is a matter of the political indifference of the so-called “masses,” their inability to realize the collective “we” by way of which to formulate their demands and impel change.() All of these interpretations, however, do not contradict, but rather complement and illuminate one other: according to Badiou, it is possible to consider an event political, only “if the substance of this event is collective.”() That is to say, a political event must be “ontologically collective,” appealing to all and each. Jacques Rancière, in turn, suggests, that genuine politics takes place only when the participation of the indifferent (“la part des sans part”) is enacted and when those who were not counted on, have been taken into consideration (“le compte des incomptés”).()
At the same time, the spontaneous mobilization of masses (as the recent examples of Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan display) in itself is not a decisive factor in the resuscitation of “politics” for it does not resolve the questions of who represents whom and in which way in the process of struggle against and displacement of established power. The ruling elite (i.e., the “state”) is not interested in “politics” (since the latter only interrupts the smooth operation of a society() ) and tries to oppress it by all means, while simulating political activity and imposing the opinion that politics is a sphere of the decision-making which is to be conducted on the top-level of power. The masses then, lulled by the discussions on democracy and a civil society and placated by the thought that they have properly delegated responsibility to those who will speak for them, remain extremely apathetic towards political life as a whole and uneager to preserve a collective “we” except when it comes to the infringement of constitutional laws or the violation of personal freedoms. In this respect it is difficult to disagree with Mikhail Mayatski who urges us not to attribute to the contemporary masses a “congenital democratic character.”()
Moreover, “democracy” today is often associated with the possibility of choice not so much in political terms as in terms of consumption (since the “truly” democratic countries are always those with liberal economies and, as such, with highly developed commodities and service marketplaces). Citizens vote “by zapping and shopping.”() In other words, the collective “we” in most cases manifests itself today almost exclusively in a form of the protest of dissatisfied consumers, who defend their own interests without taking particular interest, as it were, in the interests of others. This produces situational associations that do not move toward long-term unions. It is not so difficult to guess that as soon as citizens appear to be “restored” in their consumer rights, the temporary collective identities that arise around their perceived violation immediately disappear: dispersed and partially satisfied individuals cease to be a single collective “body.”
In Belarus, in spite of the multiple reasons for discontent with the current political regime that might have provided the needed common ground for the association of various social groups,() it is virtually impossible to even imagine any form of mass solidarity, for each of the social groups defends only its own interests. That is why the protests of individual entrepreneurs who lost their jobs, of students whose university has been closed, of journalists whose newspapers had been shut down, and so on, passed unnoticed by the majority of Belarusians.
Hence, the crisis of politics is necessarily connected with the disintegration of collective identities, in as much as one of the constituent features of “politics” is the presence of a vigorous collective subject. In Post-Soviet societies this feature has the character of a traumatic relation to any forms of collective modes of life, whether one speaks of the working class dormitories or pioneer camps (haunted by memories of GULAG camps and forced military service). The Soviet experience of compulsory “collectivization” rendered the border between private and public problematic: anyone who attempted to resist the imposed group identity risked being considered a derelict. These forms of deprivation are today seen by some as the most refined form of violence against the individual. At the same time, as Etienne Balibar argues, the formation of collective identities has always been violent, or at least compulsory; it is, explains Balibar, “a process of the building a certain ideological hegemony. All historical societies, where there existed a state, civilization, cultural norms, are familiar with this kind of compulsion.”()
It is quite symptomatic, then, that the working class which was entered into history as the ‘locomotive of proletarian revolution’ and was for a long time assigned the role of vital political force—the class for which a collectivism, one might say, is “in the blood”—in contemporary society cannot perform the same function (even in such countries as Belarus where industry is still alive and production has not been outsourced). The threats of a mass working-class movement are not observed today anywhere. Herbert Marcuse was among the first to proclaim that the working class has been “integrated into the System” and, therefore, lost its revolutionary potentiality, and his words today appear more than prescient. According to André Gorz, the role of a revolutionary agent, more likely, can be attributed to those who, being “free from the productivist ideology” are able “to deny capitalist rationality and to seek individual autonomy.”()
But even in a society where bourgeois nuclear family and liberal individualism prevail as dominant values, some forms of group identity (or, at least, some ideas of it) are, nevertheless, unavoidable. For instance, in the Post-Soviet countries, despite the aforementioned distrust toward any forms of individual submission to the collective interests, the concept of “corporate solidarity,” with the arrival of capitalism, found broad application. As a matter of fact it is not about solidarity with “the proletarians of all countries,” and not even with the “comrades” in the office or “shop,” as the terms suggests: this concept conceals its true goal—to make employees believe that the interests of their employer and their own ones are the same. I am not going to discuss here why such a model of spatio-temporally localized and prescribed solidarity is so useful for a capitalist order, and will note only that in contemporary politics one can observe something very similar.
The oppositional movement in Belarus also bears this “corporate” spirit. Students and intelligentsia, former communists and liberals, nationalists and social democrats are all involved, but as a whole the Belarusian opposition has not managed to become a meaningful force over the last 15 years. Peasants, workers, businessmen, bureaucrats—all those, who are integrated into a System through various economic levers—appear to skeptical and sometimes even hostile towards the oppositional movement as such. Even if intellectuals and students, in Belarus and perhaps all countries, have remained sensitive towards politics, these groups, as Jacques Rancière argues, are not able to “produce any political subjectivity in a full sense of the word,” to engender the kind of collective “we” that would be capable of uniting and leading various social groups toward a common goal.
Under these circumstances the phenomenon of the negative collectivity, when people get united not because they share the same political views and principles but rather because they do not see a positive solution from the existing political situation, is becoming increasingly important. Collective identifies are gathering not on the basis of what they are “for” but what they are “against.” It is well known, that among the adversaries of the current political regime in Belarus, there are many who are disappointed, who have no illusions about either Lukashenko or the leaders of opposition—and they are more prepared to vote against all, than for any, specific candidate. This might not be necessarily a specific feature of the current Belarusian politics, and perhaps can also be observed in other countries (certainly, in Russia).
We may ask ourselves, whether negative forms of collectivity might lead to the long-term political projects. In such a way, Russian artist Anatoly Osmolovsky() has pointed to the lacunae in the electoral legislation as the structural possibility for the creation of a new movement: “there is a line in the voting bulletins, ‘Against all parties, blocks and candidates,’ but there is no political subject who might have articulated properly this political stake!”() This a-political project is heir not only to anarchist movements, but also to the work of Situationist International and other radical art projects, and as I am going to discuss later on, can be seen as a regulative principle in the practice of Belarusian flash mobbers.
However paradoxical it may sound, negative collectivity has its own pros. As a rule, positive program are the prerogative of established power, whereas opposition and all those who are “against” direct their energies to the critique of the dominant ideological project. For several years now, the current Belarusian regime has been consistently working to create an image of national unanimity, which is always positive, for, or in favor. A foreigner who comes to Belarus for the first time may be shocked by the aggressive presence of this “positivity” in urban space—the streets and public spaces (including the airport and the train station) of Minsk are flooded with billboards featuring representatives of various social groups (school children, soldiers, mothers, pensioners, policemen, peasants, workers, pop-singers, etc.) in moments of ultimate joy (I am tempted to say “jouissance”). The reason for their happiness is unequivocal, as the slogan accompanying these images proudly declares: “For Belarus!”()
Hence, another peculiar feature of the contemporary politics should be noted here: namely, the shifting of political struggle into the field of cultural representation. On the one hand, even laymen know that today no one could be successful in the political field without a well-thought PR campaign. What I mean to address, however, is a far more complex phenomenon, based on a broad set of presuppositions,() including: that struggle for cultural recognition can easily override the struggle for socio-economic justice; that everyday communicative practices, cultural norms and traditions are of great importance to the formation of “public culture” in contemporary society; and last but not least, that discrimination in the field of cultural representation can have serious consequences for the consolidation of new political forces and the reconfiguration of the political field as a whole. In brief, culture today is always politics, and vice versa.
Culture as a space for a symbolic struggle
Assuming that the major theses of cultural Marxism (from Antonio Gramsci to Stuart Hall) are well known to readers, I would only recall here that culture, within this framework, can and often does function as a mode of legitimating of the existing social and political order, but in addition provides the means for and forms of resistance to domination,() allowing for the relatively easy denaturalization of established meanings and predominating ideologies, for rendering certain social groups and certain practices “visible” and, therefore, the struggle over alternative representations.
The current political regime in Belarus is fully aware of the fact that today politics is and must be done through culture, rather than straightforward oppression. The PR campaign “For Belarus!”, first undertaken some 5 years ago, as well as other modes of occupying public space provide good evidence of this. The state takes very seriously the task of “brain-washing” its citizens through its official media channels, of which the most important is national television. The “strange” revolution of March, 2006 (as well as many other events and phenomena in the recent history of Belarus) can today be understood in terms of a war of representations. When the crowds of people who gathered on October square were represented on the news program by Belarusian National Channel through the image of a female cleaner with down syndrome, who had come to the square to “look for new friends,” the intended message was clear: that this was the face of the opposition who wanted to contest the results of the elections. Another no less eloquent example would be the concerts organized each year on July 3rd (The Day of Liberation) on the same October square and broadcast by national TV channels at the prime time: the images of thousands of people, who gather on the holiday and the customary good weather listening to Belarusian pop-music (with ice-cream, beer and children) sets the scene a celebratory for the appearance of the nation’s leader. The techniques that have been used by official photographers to create images of a great, exultant crowd at once bring to mind the visual style of and ideological pathos in Leni Riefenstahl’s films.
Pierre Bourdieu’s description of the state as “a holder of monopoly for legitimate symbolical violence”() is relevant to understanding the Belarusian situation. Lukashenko, who possesses the greatest store of symbolic capital his point of view a priori is perceived as legitimate, for he personifies the State itself), can say anything in public, unapologetically describing his opposition with words such as “morons,” “ugly creatures,” “swine,” “grant-suckers,” and so forth. Moreover, such words, transferred by way of Lukashenko from private speech to public discourse, are immediately picked up by state-owned media and state officials and kept in circulation while people who are not loyal to the regime are deprived of the right to speak aloud, even when they are making comparatively innocent declarations. A single word, «Достал! » (“Fed up!”), which appeared in February and March of 2006 written graffiti in various locations around Minsk (on the walls, cars, bridges) led to a series of court trials against the young people who were accused of producing this “message”.
According to Bourdieu, symbolic power implies the ability “to create things by means of words.” Words, names, and so forth, create the conditions of social reality as much as they describe and represent them (this is the principal thesis of the constructionist model of representation, described by Stuart Hall), and they are, according to Bourdieu, therefore of the greatest significance in any political struggle. Applying an anthropological scheme to his analysis of social relations, Bourdieu asserts that the struggle over classifications is a fundamental dimension of the class struggle.()
The power to impose a given vision is political power par excellence. But the conditions in which different political actors struggle for symbolic power are certainly not equal. For example, government officials and all others who are invested with the authority to articulate the official (legitimate) point of view, are positioned as the bearers of common sense (i.e. of rationality in the present context), while whatever anyone else says is subject to (dis)approval.
Alas, our situation is such that there are no holders of symbolic capital in the Belarus’s public space outside of the Lukashenko regime: oppositional politicians have not managed to maintain the moral authority they held in the mid-nineties, there are few critical intellectuals, and those there are find their fame and appeal extremely limited.
The struggle for the symbolic power has its own logic and can be realized in various forms. The efficiency of this struggle, according to Bourdieu, depends on the degree to which the prospective sight seems to be based on a reality() : the picture of reality created by power should be perceived as more or less “trustworthy,” and in harmony with common sense. It is hard to say at just what moment, and for just what reasons, suspicion toward an imposed view of the world starts to grow, but in case of the events of March, 2006 the fact that 83% of the population supposedly gave a vote of confidence to the Lukashenko regime was likely the straw that broke the camel’s back. I do not doubt that there was certain logic to this decision. Nearly 80% of the voting population voted “pro” in the 2005 elections, and such a figure offered “proof” that they had made the right choice, that the quantity of Lukashenko supporters was only growing. But the diligence of the state propaganda apparatus, which chose to represent contemporary Belarus with a juicy piggy color() set against the expanding dark horde of enemies, did not have the planned effect: the divergence between image and reality became only more outrageously visible.
Thus, those who are known and recognized are capable of imposing that picture of the world that sets up the structures of perception and assessment of social reality. In order to destabilize this image, one needs to transform the ways in which it is perceived, to contest the seemingly consistent and coherent ideological matrix which shapes, legitimize and reproduces the status quo. Accordingly, the primary goal for all those who intend to challenge this status quo to first of all become visible in the public sphere and to work on accumulating and consolidating symbolical capital in a systematic way, in order to dismantle those cognitive categories and classifications taken by the masses as given. It is precisely this task that is taking place in the sphere of cultural politics in today’s’ Belarus.
Aesthetic vs political: art as the reservoir of political ideas
As has been shown above, the symbolic violence essential to political authority is today carried out through cultural representations. In spite of the fact that culture, indeed, “extinguishes” the resistance of those who are discontented, disguising social antagonisms and economic inequality, representations remain a double-edged sword: in a certain sense, culture can be seen as a space which belongs to no one, in which power always can be challenged, even by way of the very media it controls. It is important to be able to create alternatives (as much as possible) to official culture. Belarusian Internet users—the social group which is also the most politically active, since the Internet for many of them, is the only reliable source of information as well as powerful tool for the communication and the creation of social networks and associations–have found a platform for expressing their discontent in the formats provided by “Third way”() and “Belzhaba,” not to mention blogs, live-journals, Youtube, independent Web-magazines and other resources.
In my opinion, what has been happening in Belarus during the last several years can be best described with the situationist term détournement. This French word has always been polysemic, implying such meanings as: “deviation,” “the change of direction,” “misappropriation,” “distortion,” “abuse,” and so on. Having withdrawn the word from the common dictionary of the French language, Guy Debord invested it with conceptual and politico-aesthetic value. In Definitions (Définitions, 1958), he defines it as the defamiliarization of presupposed aesthetic elements,() with aesthetic products being used for constructing new situations.
The formalist notion of “defamiliarization” plays a key role here: a device or an image is taken out of its native environment and acquires a new meaning which entirely depends on its new context. Debord believed that “the literary and artistic heritage of humanity should be used for partisan propaganda purposes.”() The efficiency of the reception depends on its emotional influence and how long it can resist rationalization. In a word, détournement “is less effective the more it approaches a rational reply.”
According to Debord, “clashing head-on with all social and legal conventions, it cannot fail to be a powerful cultural weapon in the service of a real class struggle.”() Since it comes to the permanent and deliberate change of the rules of the game, which allows for avoiding stagnation in the aesthetic field as well as in the political one, then, correspondingly, none of the situation can be rescued from “appropriation.” It is important to remember that for situationists the totality of a spectacle can be challenged only through the “playful strategies of devalorization, aimed at the singularization of all events, things and positions.”() To say it differently, the singularization of any event or position is suggested as the only possible strategy, within the logic of partisan warfare, capable of rescuing the task of liberation from totalizing definitions. The goal of such a practice is the creation of the “temporary environments of existence.” Quite obviously, in such a case one can speak of the resistance to the logic of representation, which becomes impossible if there is no fixed political subject, nor stable conventions and the event itself is not subject to categorization.
The role of publicly assuming a position of spectacular non-intervention should be minimized, thus, and the “actors” should give way to “people of life,” in the new sense of this expression. It is necessary to notice that within the limits of the project which has received the name Situationist International, the meaning of “art” has changed considerably, and the role of the people involved in it drastically reconsidered. Debord was convinced that “art can no longer be justified as a superior activity or even as a compensatory activity to which one might honorably devote oneself.”() An artist can and should be an active participant of the revolutionary struggle, one uniquely capable of awakening mass consciousness.
Relative to the Belarusian “case,” we can say that, on the one hand, it is a question of those dodges, roundabout maneuvers, and sideways approaches that can be used in a situation when head-on collision is doomed to failure; and on the other, that aesthetic tools deployed in a certain context should have political effects. Herein, it seems to me, it would be necessary to analyze the meaning and function of such phenomena as fthe lash mob, graffiti, “network folklore,” and other modes of aesthetic resistance which have manifested themselves recently as the major directions of the struggle for the symbolic power in political and cultural arenas of contemporary Belarus.
In many Western countries this role of constant “disturber” within the public sphere was taken up by Public Art. Without going into a detailed analysis of the conceptual program of Public Art, I will propose a few remarks relating to that kind of performative politics practiced by artists such as Krzysztof Wodiczko, Hans Haake, the Guerilla Girls, Barbara Kruger and others who have radically rethought the social functions of art, the political value of art communities, and the possible modes of appeal to the urban public.
Of course, not every piece of art that appears in public space qualifies as Public Art. I am here specifically referring to the tradition of establishing monuments, decorating buildings with bas-reliefs, and other elements long used for aestheticizing urban environments, but more importantly for popularizing and legitimatizing the ideological “messages” of given regimes of power while disguising the political motivations of this or that decision. Any major European city represents a complex architectural palimpsest, which reflects not only the history of aesthetic styles or the evolution of construction technologies and the process of urbanization but as well the tireless and tiresome struggle of various regimes of power to appropriate public space, to tailor it according to its own ideological needs even where this required the drastic transformation of the urban landscape. In this sense, coarse billboards with the social advertising, new monuments, the “Eurochurch porch” (on Nemiga, in Minsk), the newly reconstructed central squares, a new building for the National Library and other architectural and landscape “artistries” of Lukashenko’s time quite can be thought within the framework of that “bureaucratic-aesthetic form of public legitimation” which is more or less successfully exploited by any regime power (but most of all by authoritarian regimes).
As Krzysztof Wodiczko argues, since at least the 18th century, the city has operated as a grand aesthetic curatorial project, a monstrous public art gallery for massive exhibitions, both permanent and temporary, of environmental and architectural “installations”; monumental “sculpture gardens”; official and unofficial murals and graffiti; gigantic “media shows”; street, underground and interior “performances”; spectacular social and political “happenings”; state and real-estate “land art projects”; economic events, actions and evictions (the newest form of exhibited art), and so on.()
At the same time, the easy accessibility of such a “gallery” potentially exposes it to strangers—individuals who might wish to take advantage of these sites for the realization of their own projects, projects which might seriously challenge the original plans of the “curators” on ideological grounds. Those who identify themselves as Public Artists are precisely such strangers, actively engaged in recoding urban space and provoking the public, through strategies of defamiliarization, to rethink what has been offered to them by authorities as their “natural” habitat. Quoting Wodiczko again: “The aim of critical public art is neither a happy self exhibition nor a passive collaboration with the grand gallery of the city, its ideological theater and architectural-social system. Rather, it is an engagement in strategic challenges to the city structures and mediums that mediate our everyday perception of the world: an engagement through aesthetic-critical interruptions, infiltrations and appropriations that question the symbolic, psychopolitical and economic operations of the city.”() Art practices, for Wodiczko as well as other politically engaged artists, should be inseparable from the crucial political issues of the day: to appear merely decorative always serves to legitimate dominant ideology.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Public Art is uniquely able “to anticipate the figures of political consciousness,” as Alain Badiou puts it.() Its genealogy ascends, among other important precursors, to the aforementioned Situationist International, one of the most consistent and radical art projects from the point of view of resisting the “society of spectacle.” Even if it seems to be “too Utopian, totalitarian, naive or full of avant-garde aestheticism to be accepted today,”() it has succeeded in breathing new life into art through elaborating a possible strategy of resistance for consumer society in the contemporary urban environment. Regardless of to just what degree contemporary public artists share the political and aesthetic views of the situationists, many agree that art should be preoccupied not with the production of “things,” but rather with the “construction of cultural situations,” "manufacture of things,” and “creation of a cultural situations.”()
In Belarus the very existence of Public Art seems to be highly problematic. On the one hand, there is no “nutritious" environment” in which to foster its development: we lack the instruments of the institutional and financial support of art that are inherent to Western capitalisms; we have little experience of curating ambitious international art projects;() and, to put it bluntly, the social demand for politically engaged art is missing in action. Certainly, the regime’s censorship machinery (for which any spontaneous action that does not correspond to their idea is potentially dangerous) should not be overlooked. On the other hand, however, we must as well take into consideration the striking infantilism of the contemporary Belarusian art scene and the disinclination of artists and curators to rethink their practice in terms of political engagement. Indeed, one could very well argue that the major problem with contemporary art in Post-Soviet countries, in general, remains a fatal failure in communication between the artist and society and, as a result, the loss of the social status of the artist.()
Meanwhile, properly deployed artistic tools could have become perhaps the most effective form of the resistance to situations of the total political control. Belarus is an interesting example for those who want to see how the "ingenuous straightforwardness of totalitarian dictatorship,” as Debord describes it, of the classical authoritarian regimes, has today given way to the methods of "ostentatious democracy”: power today is, first of all, the spectacle of power, mediated by various visual technologies. To defy the power under these circumstances necessarily means creating alternative “spectacles” capable of undermining the ideology of the show from within, using its own (media-aesthetic) tools and techniques against it. Additionally, one should not forget that the artist today remains, most likely, the only “declassed element” of the social body, to the extent that he does not participate directly in the productive relations by which it is ordered. This distantiation allows him to criticize society from a properly reflective distance, from the position of an “outsider.”() Unlike the majority of workers, who are bound hand and foot by contracts (something especially true in Belarus, where many have already paid with for oppositional political views with their jobs), artists do not risk being dismissed from their jobs as artists. Moreover, in contrast to the Soviet or Nazi regimes, contemporary artists or writers are not in the grip of “creative unions” (it is another matter, of course, that their creativity is conditioned by the marketplace). Lastly, through the use of “poetic language,” it is possible to say much more than through ordinary modes of communication, and in the field of art practice one can invent various forms and means of action that are not subject to criminal or administrative prosecution. In the Penal code there is no law, for example, banning iconoclasm, though there are articles proscribing slander or insult and these have been frequently applied against artists.()
As for Belarus, there is probably, only one artist who has a commitment to the Public Art: Ales’ Pushkin. Except for his actions near the Presidential residence in Minsk or at the staircases of the National Art Museum, there are no other examples to be considered. Curiously enough, it is in this that capacity he is recognized by the governmental authorities: how else one could explain the strange incident (in 2006) when Pushkin was arrested and held for three days suspected of having poured a black paint over a monument to Soviet hero Vasily Tchebotaryov! At first glance this might seem completely absurd—as if only professional artist can find black paint and as if the best idea he could devise was to “blackent” the bust of an official, state-sanctioned hero. But, in fact, it is not as strange as it appears: the reputation of Ales’ Pushkin as an artist who never concealed his political preferences seemed to the local police sufficient reason for arresting him instead of some lesser known local hooligan or alcoholic.
The lack of politically engaged art is only one and, moreover, perhaps minor aspect of the whole situation: a symptom of the total absence of a contemporary art scene in Belarus. My verdict might seem a bit harsh, but I would argue that it is more or less accurate. Private galleries, as a rule, adhered to the norms of traditional exhibition (with canvases hanging on the walls) and quite often their main raison d’être is to arrange encounters between potential buyers and artists. Belarus’s so-called Museum of Modern Art, which opened several years ago, occupies a peripheral space: the “ideology” of the institution, the themes of its exhibitions, and the organization of its exhibition space are anachronistic and seem to lack critical orientation. The institutional conditions for training a new generation of artists and curators have not been created,() and nor have the conditions for their work.
One of the crucial factors that might partially explain the state of art in Belarus involves the all of the missed opportunities during the 1990s, due to which Belarus was left on the margins of the world art scene. In other Eastern European countries art and artists, during the 1990s, benefitted from the support of the Soros Art Institutes and other similar private initiatives. These initiatives and organizations sponsored journals, exhibitions, and art projects, created resource centers, and actively facilitated the entrance of artists and curators onto the international scene.
A brief overview of recent and current exhibitions taking place in various Minsk reflects the quite different general trend in Belarusian art. Typical themes for these exhibitions have included: “From heart to heart,” “The solstice,” “The Muse of an Artist,” “The lighted up world,” The palette of a soul,” “My look,” “March cats,” “Angels: between earth and sky,” “The night flights,” and so on. Our artists are generally satisfied to produce still-lifes (á tout faire) destined for the bourgeois interiors of expensive furniture salons or bank offices, or the occasional performance executed without any articulated political purpose.
Certainly, a few interesting names (such as Arthur Klinov or Ruslan Vashkevich) and events (such as the performance festival “Novinki”) have been recognized in Belarus and abroad. The question, however, is whether any of these events ever managed to make their mark outside the art world and whether there are artists who willing to take up, and capable of taking up, the function of artist as a “mediator” between individual and society. In brief, art and politics in Belarus unfold in parallel spaces. Art in Belarus is understood first of all as a means of self-expression, and secondly as a tool for the aesthetic enhancement of an environment, and—but almost never as an instrument for “doing” cultural politics, or as a mode of communication capable of articulating the issues of violence, fear, pain, discrimination, xenophobia, intolerance, and so forth.
But perhaps because Belarusian art has so steadfastedly, and almost without exception, remained outside the sphere of political performance, this function has been taken up by other cultural forms, some of the most noteworthy of which include: graffiti, Net-subculture, and flash mobs—all of them groups and projects which tend to use aesthetic strategies toward the creation of alternative public spaces.
Flash mob: the performative politics of a collective subject
Despite the fact that the ideology of the “classical” flash-mob declared the flash mob “beyond religion, politics and economics,” in the Post-Soviet context, in my opinion, the phenomenon has become the concentrated embodiment of a number of the interrelated tendencies—specifically, the aforementioned crisis of “politics” and political representation, the articulation of negative collectivity, and the particular formation of public sphere in the age of Internet and so on. In the Belarusian context, the special attraction of flash mobs can as well be attributed to a number of other important factors, such as: the methods of suppression of the political heterodoxy used by Lukashenko’s regime, the split within oppositional camp, the growth of youth activity as against the indifference and inertness of the majority of the population, the shortage of creative thinking in a political life as a whole, and, set against this rather bleak background, the formation of new kinds of social interaction. In brief, flash mobs create a “spectacle” of resistance in a situation of a political stasis.
The history of the political flash mob in Belarus begins in the actions organized in August of 2004 by students at the European Humanities University, which had just been shut down by Belarusian authorities for political reasons. Some dozens of students and sympathizers sat on the ground in October square for about 15 minutes holding posters that read, “We have no place to read.” Those protest actions transformed the phenomenon of the flash mob into something more than a mere form of the entertainment for bored and otherwise disaffected urban youth. After the presidential election in Belarus, during the entire spring of 2006, flash mobs took place in Minsk and other Belarusian cities almost weekly. In one such action a large crowd, gathered in the centre of Minsk, simultaneously opened copies of the newspaper Soviet Belarus (a sanctioned mouthpiece for the Lukashenko regime) and tore them into pieces. Another example: dozens of people, having gathered at October square, blindfolded themselves and turned away from the big screen placed on the square on which is broadcast Belarus’s “official” news station. Or, we might recall the cases when so-called “politmobbers” set afloat, on the river Svisloch, paper ships on which they had written the names of arrested opponents of Lukashenko; or the occasion on which hundreds of balloons were burst beneath an enormous poster announcing The Day of unification of the people of Russia and Belarus,” and action undertaken in protest against Lukashenko’s acceptance of Russian gas. But perhaps the most thrilling flash mob was that which took place on April 1 of the same year, at the “Dinamo” stadium. Its major protagonists were, unexpectedly, the police and KGB. On the eve of April Fool’s Day, information about the impending action, which turned out to be disinformation, was spread via Internet. Flash mobbers declared that they were going to gather a crowd of clowns, skiers, and other costumed characters all wearing real or prosthetic moustaches. Tipped off to the planned flash mob, police and KGB forces gathered at the appointed time at the stadium and waited for the action to begin while malicious mobbers, hidden from view, took incriminating pictures of this “unapproved gathering” of the supposed forces of law and order.
For scholars of contemporary culture the flash mob is of special interest as it is the product of the Internet age, which provides for the possibility of notifying and mobilizing hundreds of people in very short periods of time. Howard Rheingold, his book “Smart mobs: the next social revolution” argues that mobile communication devices and Internet “are making it possible for groups of people to organize collective actions on a scale never before possible”.() However, the mediated character of this form of collective actions is not only due to the use of the Internet as an organizational tool: a flash mob makes sense only in so far as it is a media event: it should be filmed and its representation transmitted, if not during the moment of action itself then in the form of a subsequent “echo” in the mass-media.
Let us return, in this context, to the problem of the collective subject. It is due to the undecidability of this question in Belarusian politics that flash mobs, which are capable of generating “singular totalities” (that is, a temporary collective subject), became the most vital form of political protest. The problem of the subject is a decisive one for political life, but one needs to take into account construction of political subjects depends on a logic of legitimation and exclusion (Judith Butler), indeed from both sides: the opposition and the authorities. Parties and movements whose status it is not thusly legitimated find it difficult to participate in political life. The Belarusian regime indefatigably tracks down and puts under control all actions of oppositional politics while the Belarusian opposition is preoccupied by excluding those it considers outsiders, not sufficiently powerful to participate in “big politics” while at the same time aspiring to appropriate for itself the symbolic capital held by those who have already advanced in the arena of politics.
Organizers of and participants in Belarus’s flash mobs have intuitively experienced: deterritorialization (they do not require registration of an “organization” with the corresponding legal address, they do not ask for the permission to carry out an action in a strictly defined place); decentralization (in the absence of any administrative hierarchy); anonymity of the organizers and participants, and temporariness of association. These seem to represent the only possible strategy fro avoiding the creation of a “political subjectivity” that could easily be identified and, thus, appropriated by power, and so extinguished from the political field.
That this strategy appears to have been largely successful so far, judging by the actions of the police and KGB, who do their best to trace down the “politmobbers” and yet, even when they succeed in being in the right time and place, are unsure what to do with people who have gathered, albeit without proper permissions, to do things like inflate balloons, pays bills at the post office, or eat ice cream. Power tries to “identify” the invisible enemy, using the standard procedures of the identity check, but in a way it is meaningless, as flash mobbers do not declare any overt political program or claim to represent any organization.
The opposition also attempted to take this “actionism” under its control and to subordinate it to its own methods of resistance. There was even an initiative to create a special “center” for the coordination of flash mobs. Obviously, the flash mobbers were not open to such a possibility, for such centralized coordination in principle is antithetical to the very idea of a flash mob. In carrying out its actions the anonymous mob always represents only “itself” so the rights of this of this “social group” cannot possibly be delegated to any person or organization. Perhaps it would be useful here to quote a phrase from the manifesto “Against all parties!” written by a group of Russian artists and intellectuals: “We are in search of constructive forms of collectivity, but we do not wish to represent anybody’s interests, even our own (for they still have to be found out).”()
The withdrawal from political representation and refusal to communicate according to the established conventions, in my opinion, is also manifested in the fact that the flash mob is a form of expression that does not need words, for it replaces them with performance. Indeed, public space is littered with words: what it lacks are precisely such actions and performances. Besides, silence is also a much safer strategy for it is quite difficult to prosecute. It is true, of course, that the negation of verbal communication (between the participants as well as with the “public”) leads to situations in which protests are necessarily localized in a certain space and the meaning of the action can be understood only by those who are directly involved. Such noncommunicative behavior compromises the efficiency of all actions as a whole: flash mobbers pretend that they have gathered accidentally and that nothing is happening, and the public is rarely invested with the means to interpret the events, which it therefore perceives as mere forms of entertainment.
In spite of the fact that the phenomenon of the flash mob is the product of network culture, it would be a mistake to overlook its “historical” roots: namely, the traditions of anarchism, partisan movements, and Public Art.
The unwillingness of flash mobbers to become a part of any long-term identified political project means that the “movement” is really not concerned with changing society and everyday life through existing political means. It is a “revolt without a cause,” without clearly formulated purposes and methods. I do not think that in case of “Belarusian situationism” we are dealing with any conceptually grounded political idea, and not only because the strategy of a singular collective performance has not been presented or represented in a form of the manifesto, nor because its “leaders” are incapable of articulating it. Any of this would be incommensurate with the flash mob by definition. Besides, our “situationism” is not so much the result of a reflexive attitude towards the strategy and tactics of political resistance, as of spontaneous reactions to specific “situation” created by the political regime, a situation in which any protest is considered illegitimate violence and in which forms of expression considered legal within the limits of traditional democratic institutes and forms are banned and prosecuted.
But it is precisely for this reason—the impossibility of winning the fight according to established rules—that the image of the guerrilla, the fighter who defies the conventions of battle, is so dear to Belarusians. “To gather in one place, going ten different roads, to strike strong blow, and then again to dissipate, as quickly and silently as possible and then to attack in other place”:() this mode of acting characterizes flash mobs.
What is interesting is that guerrilla actions are as convenient for those who are weak as they are dangerous to those who strong, because in guerrilla war the enemy turns into “a virus which is simultaneously deadly and invisible. This is not a civilized enemy. The virus is a metaphor for such an agent to whom the battlefield is not required.”() Guerrilla actions furtively undermine the forces of the opponent, who never knows where and when the next blow will be struck and so is compelled to maintain his readiness for battle at all times. Probably, one would go too far to suggest Belarus’s flash mobbers will be able to exhaust the “enemy” by way of these unpredictable actions, but perhaps not too much to think that they may at the very least tire and bedraggle the enemy.
Strange though it may sound, one can discuss both flash mobbers and Public Artists using the discourse of warfare. Some public artists say that one of the most effective maneuvers for the seizure of public space is an attack from the flanks, which confuses an enemy prepared to be attacked at its center. For example, in our case the police might expect a head-on collision in the city center—in October square, for instance, but in fact many actions take place elsewhere, in parks and squares, on the outskirts of the city, in the courtyards of residential buildings and near fountains and monuments.
The public artist, no less than participants in the flash mob, does not request or require permission from city authorities, knowing not only that such permission will most likely be denied but as well that, as Krzysztof Wodiczko argues, one needs to move constantly in order to avoid frontal confrontation with authorities.()
Furthermore, Public Art must have a public:() one that does not passively observe but actively participates. To create such a public, it is necessary to make use of spaces of transit, where passing crowds can unexpectedly become the public in question. Here, it seems to me, there exists the possibility of convoking a collective political subject even if only temporarily: the collective actions allow the individual to sense at psychosomatic level the political alternative implied in the action. Flash mobbers do not work to create this manner of “public” in this manner. Their messages appeal more to the audience of the mass media than to any public directly involved or implicated in their performance.
It seems to me that the flash mob in Belarus has fulfilled its “historical” mission, and that its “political career” will not last much longer. The situational politicization it has experienced in Belarus has on the one hand made the phenomenon a popular form of resistance, but on the other hand its playful, frivolous, apolitical nature compromises its effectiveness. It is symptomatic, perhaps, that the term has entered into the lexicon of state Belarusian television, on which the protests of illegal immigrants in America who, opposing new immigration legislation refused to come to work or consume for one day, as a “flash mob.” In other words, in the “political unconscious” of Belarusian authorities, the flash mob has gained the status of the political protest—indeed, to such an extent that it has even appropriated it for its own discursive needs.
The strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare in the cultural and political space of Belarus
What will be next? One can say that “purely cultural protest” anywhere has very limited shelf life. In this sense, the actions of flash mobbers (as well as of artists) should not be considered as the highest and the most effective form of resistance. More likely, one needs to speak of the historical missions of such forms of the protests, about the crucial temporary functions of the spontaneous creativity of “the masses” as the gradual consolidation of a meaningful political movement.
Following Michel Foucault’s arguments, we know today that as the centers of power are the multiple, so too should be the points of resistance. As has been shown here, the actions of flash mobbers, together with other cultural initiatives, are engaged in the work of challenging and compromising the System by way of numerous attacks from the flanks and at the same time preparing the ground for the eventual association of different social groups within a single field of political struggle. The guerrilla actions flashing here and there, allow us to intercept the initiative from power, to resist interpellation (as in the submission to power and the becoming of a "subject" in its own image), and to formulate our own questions. One needs to create these “situations’ and not simply to react to the ‘situations’ imposed by power.
The “lawlessness” of the power demands an adequate response, and in the given conditions only actions governed by surrealistic logic (and thus perceived as absurd by the authorities) seem to qualify. In other words, it is indeed necessary “to invent politics,” but this task today requires creativity, imagination, and a sense of humor. It is absolutely essential to create new and alternative representations and to resist to the bad taste of the petit-bourgeois that provides the backbone of Lukashenko’s support. If it is not possible to change the political status quo at the moment, one can try at least try to devalue established values and compromise the cultural norms imposed by dominant ideology. In order to successfully develop the politics of cultural deconstruction, there should be not only multiple centers of resistance, but as well multiple objects of critique.
Hal Foster, accentuating the role of culture in contemporary society, points out that homo significans superseded homo oeconomicus on the periphery of social life. The cultural codes of representation function today as “means of production” (at least, of the production of identity): “patriarchy and racism, though almost structural to any given workplace, are first learned in cultural institutions like the school or through the media.”() Echoing Althusser, Foster concludes that “as we ‘consume’ the code, in effect, we ‘reproduce’ the system.’” Correspondingly, what I mean to say is that while transforming and replacing dominant cultural codes, we can form the ground for new political subjectivity.
As I have argued above, the necessity of symbolic struggle in the field of cultural production in Belarus is prescribed by two major factors: on the one hand, the key role assigned to cultural representations and visual media in contemporary social and political life; and on the other, the existence of a peculiar political situation in which it seems that nothing can be done, yet appears that some things are nonetheless possible.() There are multiple sites (including our bodies and other private micro-spaces) which might become sites of resistance and have the potential to be transformed into public sites, due to the unprecedented development of digital media (YouTube is most instrumental here).
Beyond the creation of alternative representations, it is absolutely necessary to subject the images produced by official media and dominant culture to corrosion, to undermine them from within. Iconoclasm can and should be comprehended as an efficient tool against political orthodoxy. Indeed, we have already seen quite successful examples of counter-representations. I am referring, first of all, to Internet-generated phenomena such as “The people television” on the Web-site of NGO “The Third Way” (http://multclub.org), the collection of political caricatures of Lukashenko (www.svoboden.org/ru/cartoons), the collection of “photo-frogs” (the closest English term would be the ‘Photoshop contest”) (http://belzhaba.com), and others. The ironic distance created by these iconoclastic images weakens the pathos and lay bare the pompous absurdity of dominant ideology. By nature, something like “photo-frog” is parasitic on dominant discourse, working by “splitting” the visual and verbal messages produced by official culture. It plays around with “slips of the tongue” made by political leaders, devalorizing words and images until official culture becomes incongruous and ridiculous (the illustration here is a picture “For sexually mature Belarus!”, which is just one of thousands images classified by the Web-resource within the rubric: “For [such and such] Belarus!”)
My personal hope is that through the invention and elaboration of these visual “terrorologics” (to use the term coined by Mikhail Ryklin in the 1990s) = new spaces and discourses might appear in which, if such a thing is still possible, the “intellectualization” of politics might yet be realized.
* All translations in this version, unless otherwise indicated, are by the author.
Please see the short version of this essay: Flashmob - the Divide Between Art and Politics in Belarus (Articles)